I recently spent a week in northern Minnesota. When I wasn’t not-catching fish, listening to loons, or feeding the mosquitoes, I spent quite a bit of time walking in the woods. It was wonderful. Breathing air that didn’t taste like car exhaust was different, but I got used to it.
Spending time in nature—whether walking in the woods, puttering in the backyard, or strolling in a park—is good for the body. And the mind. And the soul. Being outdoors activates what’s known as the “happiness effect.”
Even a 15-minute walk in the woods—or on the prairie—helps you relax and offers a much-needed break from the chaos and noise of the “real” world. John Muir got it right when he said, “of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt.”
Travel writer Bill Bryson takes Muir at his word. Having hiked a good bit of England, Bryson stumbles upon an outcropping of the Appalachian Trail (AT) near his home in New Hampshire and decides to tackle “the granddaddy of long hikes.”
Stephen Katz, a ne’er-do-well friend from Des Moines, volunteers to accompany Bryson, and the “waddlesome” duo hit the trail at Springer Mountain, Georgia, intent on hiking the Trail’s rugged 2,190 miles to Mount Katahdin, Maine.
it’s immediately clear that they have no business on the AT. Woefully unprepared for its rigors, they come to their senses in the Great Smoky Mountains of Tennessee and abandon the lunacy of hiking the entire Trail. They hopscotch their way via cab and rental car to Virginia, where they hike a more agreeable stretch of the Trail in the Blue Ridge Mountains, before suspending their odyssey.
Smitten with the AT, Bryson continues hiking abbreviated stretches of it on his own. He samples the Trail in Pennsylvania (home of the meanest rattlesnakes on the AT), climbs Kittatinny Mountain, and survives the deceptively deadly slopes of Mount Washington.
Months later, Bryson and Katz resume hiking the AT in the notorious Hundred-Mile Wilderness of Maine. Katz gets hopelessly lost, and they mercifully decide to call it a hike. Later, mellowed by cream soda, they conclude that although they didn’t hike the Appalachian Trail, they DID hike the Appalachian Trail.
By turns whimsical, scholarly, cantankerous, and philosophical, Bryson paints a thoughtful portrait of the Appalachian Trail, recounting its curious history and uncertain future. He mourns the passing of the “massively graceful” American chestnut and marvels at the astounding biological richness of the Great Smoky Mountains. Bryson even knits together earthquakes, Alaskan glaciers, and swimming pools in Texas.
Like the best guides, Bryson leads us on surprising and offbeat detours. We glimpse Stonewall Jackson, meet house proud loons, and explore the strange, sad town of Centralia, PA. We also meet some of the Trail’s abundant wildlife, from hellbender salamanders to “dopily unassuming” moose.
Zoologist Desmond Morris observed that “the city is not a concrete jungle, it is a human zoo.” A WALK IN THE WOODS is an invitation to escape that zoo, and Bryson is a worthy companion. Just don’t get him started on cabbies in Gatlinburg, TN.
NLS Annotation: Bryson relates the adventures and misadventures of two totally unfit hikers as he and longtime friend Stephen Katz traverse the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. Returning from more than twenty years in Britain, he set out to rediscover his homeland, but the two men find themselves awed by the terrain and stymied by the unfamiliar local culture. Bestseller. Some strong language. 1998.
For information about the 2015 movie adaptation, “A Walk in the Woods,” starring Robert Redford and Nick Nolte: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1178665/?ref_=fn_al_tt_3
Hike back in time and enjoy a June 1998 book talk by Bill Bryson at Olsson’s Books and Records in Washington, DC: https://www.c-span.org/video/?105484-1/walk-woods
An amazing and altogether different real-life tale of hiking the Appalachian Trail is GRANDMA GATEWOOD’S WALK: THE INSPIRING STORY OF THE WOMAN WHO SAVED THE APPALACHIAN TRAIL, by Ben Montgomery:
Biography of Emma Gatewood (1887-1973), who left her family in Ohio in May 1955, saying only that she was going for a walk. Four months later she completed a solo hike of the Appalachian Trail, from south to north—the first woman to do so. Details her trip and subsequent celebrity. 2014. BR 21504 / DB 80502
Tom Ryan covers heartwarming New England terrain in FOLLOWING ATTICUS: FORTY-EIGHT HIGH PEAKS, ONE LITTLE DOG, AND AN EXTRAORDINARY FRIENDSHIP (DB 74367).
The Appalachian Trail’s treacherous West Coast cousin is the star of WILD: FROM LOST TO FOUND ON THE PACIFIC CREST TRAIL, by Cheryl Strayed. (DB 80502).